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New Rules, Poor Shooting, and Stilted Ball Movement: On the Devolution of the Wolves’ Offense

The Wolves have performed poorly on offense through their first five games. There are myriad reasons, many of which are addressable.

Denver Nuggets v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

It was a forgone conclusion entering the season that the Minnesota Timberwolves would possess one of the NBA’s most formidable offenses. Ushered by the three-headed monster of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell and featuring high-octane bench pieces in Malik Beasley and Naz Reid, many believed that the Wolves would slot easily into the league’s top-10 in offensive rating.

However, to this point, the Wolves have struggled mightily with tickling the twine — or rattling the rim, for that matter. But they aren’t alone.

Offense has reigned supreme for the better portion of the last decade as an ever-increasing reliance on speed, 3-pointers, and getting to the free-throw line has evolved around the league, starting with the 7-seconds or less Phoenix Suns and perfected by the Curry-era Golden State Warriors. The NBA implemented rule changes to handicap defense at precisely the same time when front offices and coaching staffs were evangelizing the pace-and-space revolution.

As a result, the average team offensive rating peaked at 112.3 during the 2020-21 season. However, through the first couple of weeks, the average has dipped to 106.3, which would represent the lowest since 2014-15 (105.6).

This decrease in offensive efficiency is likely due to a couple of reasons, the most prominent being changes to the rules that have significantly slashed free-throw rate.

https://twitter.com/seehafer_/status/1454871414004146183

Gone are the days in which an athlete could jump into a defender or stop abruptly in front of an opponent to draw an offensive foul, and, frankly, the game is better for it. However, this needed change combined with the NBA referees’ early-season “points of emphasis” has cut the median number of free-throws by an entire attempt per game and has left the likes of James Harden and Chris Paul in search of new go-to moves.

Although, a dip in free-throw attempts isn’t the only reason why offenses league-wide are on life support. Additionally, teams are simply shooting extremely poorly, particularly from behind the arc. The median effective field goal percentage for the 2021-22 season sits at 51.1%, down nearly three percentage points from last season (54.0%). The median 3-point field goal percentage has also taken a nosedive, falling to 33.6% from 36.8%.

While these league-wide trends aren’t likely to stick for the entire season — offense is notorious for starting the season off slow before taking off once athletes get their game legs under them — they more or less track with many of the Wolves’ struggles through five games.

Minnesota currently ranks 23rd overall in NBA.com’s offensive rating (102.0) and tied for 17th in 3-point field goal percentage (32.5%); they shot 34.9% from deep during the 2020-21 season, ranking 25th. (Note: The Wolves’ overall 3-point shooting is heavily weighed down by their conversion of only 31.3% of their 18.4 wide-open attempts per game.) Additionally, their free-throw attempts per game have dropped from 23.1 last season to 18.8 this year.

Unfortunately, the numbers only get more grisly the deeper one dives. The Wolves are shooting 32.3% during catch-and-shoot opportunities (25th), including 31.5% on 3-point field goals (24th); they’re converting only 25.8% of their non-restricted area shots in the paint (29th); they’re scoring a meager 1.04 points per possession in transition (35th percentile) and 0.83 during spot-up attempts (17th percentile); then there’s this:

Simply put, the Wolves’ offense has been among the NBA’s worst in one of the worst league-wide offensive starts to the season in nearly a decade.

The reasons behind the poor start of the season for Minnesota’s offense are manifold. For starters, they have struggled to adequately move the ball while Towns, Edwards, Russell, and even Beasley figure out the optimal shot-selection pecking order.

“[The] ball movement. Like the early ball movement. Moving the ball on pick-and-roll, we put two on the ball, we had to get off of it. It was sticky,” Wolves head coach Chris Finch said of what needs to improve for his team’s offense to be successful following their 93-91 loss to the Denver Nuggets Saturday night.

Poor ball movement has been a talking point since the regular season began, so much so that Edwards called out himself, Russell, and Towns for not passing enough following their loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Wolves rank 20th with 277.2 passes per game, but the numbers don’t completely capture the level to which the ball sticks in their collective hands. Quite often, even the passes that are made lack a level of intentionality and don’t put teammates in a proper position to attack or score.

The above clip also provides an example of another way the Wolves can kick start their offense: Employ the services of Karl-Anthony Towns much more frequently.

“We need to find KAT more. Eleven shots is not enough, and I’ll take responsibility for that, a lot of that, but in general, we’ve got to find him more,” Finch said. “You know, he’s been super-efficient for us. He rarely leads us in shot attempts. He was our leading scorer at halftime with only three shot attempts, and it wasn’t like he was at the line a lot either, and that’s something we need to address, and we’ve got to find him more.”

Diving whole-hog into Towns’ absurd efficiency is the best and most logical way to improve the Wolves’ overall offense moving forward. His 16.6 field goal attempts per game are his lowest since the 2017-18 season when sharing the floor with the ball-dominant Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague, and Jamal Crawford, and the third-lowest of his career. Taking two shots away from Edwards (21.8; 31.9% from 3, 9.4 3FGA) and one from Russell (16.8; 30.0% from 3, 8.0 3FGA) would not only more appropriately spread the shot distributions across their skillsets — and importance to the franchise long-term — but also naturally improve the team’s effective field goal percentage and, thus, offensive rating.

The Wolves’ offense won’t be this bad all season; mathematically speaking, it is virtually impossible. Jaden McDaniels and Taurean Prince will shoot better than 14.3% and 15.4% from deep, respectively. Towns will become more involved with the offense. Edwards, Russell, and Reid will become more efficient from the floor. Finch will iron out Beasley’s role.

But what the first five games of the regular season have put on display is the team’s offense at its worst-case scenario. The total efforts of the Wolves’ offense and defense have resulted in a 3-2 record, with the losses coming by a combined nine points and a win over the defending champions. In the grand scheme, it could be a lot worse.